Dec 3, 2010

Missing the point on WikiLeaks

The WikiLeaks cables -- far more significant than anyone has acknowledged -- will change governments. But both the mainstream media and the federal government appear to be completely oblivious to the fact.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Anyone else got the feeling the local mainstream media coverage of the WikiLeaks cables has been a little, well, underdone? Julian Assange’s mum has got about as much coverage as there’s been hard analysis of the significance of some of the revelations for Australian foreign policy -- particularly those pertinent to our region, and most especially in regard to China and Korea, where we'll be putting troops in harm's way if things turn uglier. Much of the local coverage has been of the judgemental variety: either that WikiLeaks has perpetrated some profoundly evil act -- although so far not even the most froth-mouthed News Limited commentators have gone the way of their American idols and demanded the extra-judicial killing of Assange -- or the whole thing’s rather 'meh' -- admittedly a difficult reaction to avoid when confronted with the shock revelation that it’s not just most of the democratic world that regards Russia as a corrupt kleptocracy, the State Department does too. Well spotted, Foggy Bottom. Maybe they finally got round to reading the new le Carré. It’s also true that our mastheads lack the analytical firepower to properly consider the foreign policy implications of the revelations -- certainly not in the manner of The New York Times which, in spite of criticisms that it has allowed the US government to vet its copy, has provided serious contextual analysis and value-adding to the material, better than The Guardian, which has been rather more interested in international personalities instead of the more complex diplomatic significance of what we’re learning. There'll doubtless be more local analysis when material more pertinent to Australia is released (our media being in permanent thrall to any international attention directed to Australia), but in the interim what little we’re being offered appears a colossal exercise in missing the point. This rolling series of releases -- and WikiLeaks has barely begun to release the amount of material it has -- is raising fundamental issues not merely about statecraft and diplomacy but information, power and the role of the media. Guy Rundle spotted this immediately, and while I would say that, wouldn’t I, his analysis has been the best you’ll see in an Australian publication. This is about far more than a simple matter of leaking sensitive cables, or newspaper coverage of those leaks. Instead we’re given an uncomprehending coverage by the Australian media, as if it simply can’t process what’s happening, and needs to keep trying different narratives to see if they fit what’s being observed, sticking with whatever seems to temporarily do the trick. Given personalities are always easier to discuss than even the simplest policy issues, most of this has focussed on what ambassadors said about political leaders, and Assange himself -- Assange as Bond-style supervillain; Assange as alleged rapist-wanted man; Assange as net libertarian ("information yearns to be free!"). None of that comes remotely near explaining what Assange is trying to do, which -- regardless of how you feel about it -- you have to go beyond the mainstream media to start to understand. It’s not entirely fair to blame the media, though, because the Australian government is doing exactly the same thing. The response of the federal government has been... I was going to say "instructive", but it’s more accurately, and sadly, affirmative of what you suspected, that politicians and bureaucrats can’t see this through any other than a rather 20th century, Cold War-style lens. Accordingly, the whole business is being treated like an espionage case: Robert McClelland has made vague threats about arresting Assange and providing "every assistance" to the United States on "law enforcement action" and a "taskforce" has been assembled to consider the implications of the material being released. More seriously, McClelland has spoken of criminal offences in relation to publishing WikiLeaks-related material and said that the media may be asked to refrain from publishing certain material on national security grounds. It barely needs to be said that McClelland’s suggestion that media outlets might either be asked to not publish material, or might find themselves charged if they do, appears to entirely miss that this is no longer 1985 and media executives are no longer the information gatekeepers they once were, even if they were inclined to cooperate. The Cold War analog doesn't work because, even if they weren't moral equivalents, the two Cold War players were mirrors in their goals and apparati and had a dense, mutually-agreed set of rules to play by. WikiLeaks, however, is actively subverting any rules, far more asymmetric and nebulous even than the Islamofascist terrorism threat used so successfully to maintain the national security state in the absence of our Cold War enemies. Dorothy, we're not in West Berlin anymore. The prime minister has gone further than McClelland, declaring the release of cables by WikiLeaks "illegal", the sort of issue that, thankfully, courts still decide rather than politicians, and which in any event is hardly as clear as Julia Gillard seems to suggest, given she didn’t even say where exactly WikiLeaks’ publication would be considered illegal. More to the point, she appears to have forgotten that Assange is an Australian citizen, and as such is entitled to a basic level of concern for his treatment from the government of his country -- a level of concern that is entirely absent from the remarks of either the Attorney-General or the prime minister. We’ve been down this road before with David Hicks, and that didn’t end well for the government concerned. And Assange is no David Hicks (although, some evidently regard him as far more dangerous). I'll finish on a complete digression: when the music industry first switched from vinyl to CD, one particularly prescient musician -- can't recall the name, too vague to Google -- suggested that once songs were reduced to a series of 0s and 1s, they were implicitly devalued, and that eventually the music industry would come to rue undermining its basic product in this way. It took another decade and filesharing software to do it, but he or she was exactly right. The digitisation of information implicitly devalues it, makes it vastly, world-changingly easier to share. And that process doesn't just change relationships within existing systems, it changes the systems themselves, fundamentally. Relatively trivial industries like entertainment have spent a decade discovering that horrible fact. You can't help but wonder how long it will take governments to work out that they are now in exactly the same situation as the music and movie execs who've spent so long trying to prop up by force the old system even as it collapses around them.

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90 thoughts on “Missing the point on WikiLeaks

  1. Michael R James

    BK wrote:
    [The digitisation of information implicitly devalues it, makes it vastly, world-changingly easier to share.]

    It may be a bit bizoid but the more accurate term to use instead of “devalue” might be “de-monetize”. That is, it makes it difficult for corporates to get people to pay for it.

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    Dillard once again proved she is not fit for anything much. “Illegal”? How about her locking up of innocent kids outside the law and then trying to shove them off to Timor even when she knows that is actually and demonstrably illegal.

  3. Mark Heydon

    Gillard rails against the “illegal” actions of Assange and her and the A-G offer every assistance to foreign governments in his persecution. Yet all seem to jump to the defence of convicted drug smugglers sitting in Indonesian prisons.

    On the digression:
    There is another interesting parallel between the music industry and the diplomatic situation. The “value” in music is now more and more in live gigs, rather than recorded music. In diplomacy, if secrecy is paramount primacy will need to go to live rather than recorded means as well.

  4. klewso

    Fair crack!
    As some people say, they’re only just human – consider the bind the “Gnus Limited” herd finds itself in, after crusading so long and hard for our “right to know every embarrassing thing Labor does”, after discovering this responsibility in the debris of Howard being washed away? How would they look campaigning for Assange’s right to do the same thing, informing punters what the US government has been doing for years, especially when it involves what the “Rupublicans” were up to their “jatz crackers” in?

  5. Peter Phelps

    I look forward to the day when Wikileaks publishes material from Cuba, Venuzuela, Zimbabwe, North Korea and China.

  6. klewso

    Have they got that “material” – and don’t we expect that sort of thing from them anyway – doesn’t the USA stand for better?

  7. Gavin Moodie

    I agree with BK, ‘cept that his analogy with music’s shift from analogue to digital is not a digression but germane to the WikiLeaks point.

    Some Crikey posters to Rundle’s pieces on WikiLeaks suggested that WikiLeaks may be temporary cos governments will find a way of making it illegal and shutting it down. But that will be as unsuccessful as the music industry’s attempts to shut down music file sharing sites and make promoters of file sharing software liable for any illegal file sharing using their software.

    Furthermore, any attempt to shut down WikiLeaks will be as unsuccessful and ultimately pointless as the Rudd government’s mandatory universal internet filter, about which the government has thankfully gone very quiet.

    WikiLeaks is doing more for access to information than freedom of information legislation. However, it relies on someone with access to information leaking it to WikiLeaks. That is where governments should direct their attention if they want to keep their secrets secret.

  8. klewso

    As for Gillard and McClelland doing their “Julie Bishop and Phil Ruddock” impersonations – in “Ned Kelly Land” – do we still franchise out our foreign policy to the US, to write what to say we think? Who is advising her on this – and does their nurse know they’re “out”?

  9. John Marlowe

    Michael Moore could have a field day!

    Ain’t Gillard an obedient lacky for US ‘strategic’ interests!

    Has anyone noticed how very big ASIO’s cyber department has become and all its job ads!

    <a href=";.>new-counter-terrorism-centre-opens-amid-hundreds-of-aussie-threats

  10. crapocular

    I think the artist you are referring to might be David Bowie – see this article from The Independent in 1996 is about his decision to sell his back catalog long before the threat of zero cost internet distribution had materialized.

    More recently, this article from the Guardian this year (cached at google) looks at that decision with the wisdom of hindsight and quotes Bowie from 2002: “Bowie then went on to make one of the most perceptive observations anyone’s ever made about our networked world. Music, he said, “is going to become like running water or electricity”.’

    The fact these 2 articles could be found by 1 slightly motivated person so quickly for this little bit of chatter is in itself testament in itself to the enormity of the paradigm shift.

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